Not so long ago, I attended the decommissioning of the aircraft carrier I was stationed on in the US Navy, the Big John, USS John F. Kennedy CV-67. The keel was laid the same month I was born, and when I saw it decommissioned, it was like watching a funeral for a skyscraper. What was once alive with five thousand plus sailors and officers was suddenly lifeless and quiet, and then everyone walked away in silence.
Recently on a trip to Orlando, Florida, I realized that the mall I’d stopped in, Fashion Square, felt familiar. I didn’t recognize it, but I felt it; I’d been there, and I’d been there a lot. I went to boot camp in Orlando, and the mall was just west of the base. A few years back I saw the base was closed down, but wondered what it looked like now.
Like my old ship, it was gone.
Well, almost gone. Blue Jacket Park now stands where our parade grounds and “grinder” used to be (I promise it didn’t look any where near as nice as it does now). A small memorial with a plaque marks the spot to suggest that, for thirty years, it was a training facility for new sailors. But could all of it really have been completely removed and an entire suburb put in its place?
Trying as hard as I could to line up where the old streets were and where the new streets ran, I manage to find my way to the eastern most part near the lake, and there was something of the old base still. There used to be a McDonald’s right next door to the A-school barracks, a six-story, two-towered building of light yellow bricks distinct for only having tiny square windows in the top of the walls. The towers are still there for now, dingy and broken down with neglect, but everything else is long gone. A sign says they won’t be there for much longer.
There are little shops tucked in among upscale housing that I can only imagine what they cost. Fifty-five acres of land, the plaque had said. The only other bases I’d ever been to was Norfolk, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and the San Diego training center. Three of those five are now gone, and Jacksonville is eagerly awaiting a new carrier from Norfolk. Was it really so long ago?